One of the interesting sidebars to last week’s midterm elections was the success of two Black Republican candidates for seats in the House of Representatives. In South Carolina Tim Scott won a seat in the 3rd Congressional District and Allen West was victorious in the 22nd Congressional District in Florida. They will become the first Black Republicans to serve in Congress since former Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma left the House in 2002. Significantly, both men won in predominantly white districts.
For the Republican Party, Scott and West represent a breakthrough of sorts. The GOP has struggled against the tide of recent history in trying to make inroads in the Black community. Despite a history that includes Abraham Lincoln, a President associated with emancipation, and Black history makers like Frederick Douglass, the Republican Party has little connection today to the majority of Black voters. The party’s historic alliance with Blacks is a distant memory now that conservatives dominate its politics. Starting with the party’s right turn in 1964 with the presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater to the administrations of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, the party became increasingly distant from the Black community. While Blacks have sought office under the GOP banner in the past, there were few successes with notable exceptions such as Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, Representatives Gary Franks of Connecticut, and J.C. Watts of Oklahoma.
The presence of Scott and West in the 111th Congress creates an interesting dynamic for Black Americans. What is unknown is whether the criticism of the Republican Party by many Blacks will become mute now that the GOP caucus in the House will boast two African-American members. Will Blacks now drop their guard somewhat and be more receptive to overtures from the Republican Party? For Scott and West, both of whom will represent predominantly white constituencies, the challenge will be whether they can weigh the interests of their party against that of the larger Black community. For instance, will they cast votes strictly along party lines or feel free to take positions that carry greater cultural and racial meaning? In many ways, the answer to that question is already evident. West has revealed his hand so to speak by naming an incendiary conservative radio talk show host, Joyce Kaufman, as his chief of staff. The incoming Congressman made over 100 appearances on Kaufman’s local Florida show. Scott too is likely to follow the conservative path.
Perhaps what will be most interesting is the relationship of Scott and West to President Obama. Republicans on the Hill have taken an aggressive stance against the President and have further alienated many Blacks. If Scott and West take the same tact, it is unlikely Blacks will grant them a pass out of any sort of racial solidarity. Moreover, it is doubtful the two men will join their Black Democratic colleagues as members of the Congressional Black Caucus although Scott and West have received an invitation to become part of the group. In a strange turnaround, the GOP may boast their new members’ racial identity while Blacks downplay it and treat Scott and West as just the latest Republican antagonists. The positioning of both men will begin once they receive committee assignments from the new Speaker, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio. As the new GOP House majority rolls out its agenda, the voting behavior of its two new Black members is certain to attract attention.
The Republican Party faces an uphill climb in trying to gain legitimacy among Black voters. It has not helped that some quarters of the party have been critical of the more moderate politics of retired General Colin Powell and that the GOP chairman, Michael Steele, has done himself no favors with several missteps. Steele’s tenure as head of the party has done little to win over Blacks and in some ways may have had the opposite effect. Though he professed a commitment to diversity when he took the reins of the party leadership, Michael Steele has not demonstrated any ability to reverse the long drift of Blacks from the Republican Party. To his credit though, Steele can point to the election of Scott and West as important steps in trying to make the party more racially inclusive. Ironically, there is a move afoot by some Republicans to oust Steele as party chair.
It is doubtful the presence of Scott and West alone will reverse the partisan alignment in the Black community. How the GOP convinces Blacks that the party is a viable option for their votes against the racially polarizing rhetoric of some Republican officials and conservative activists is the larger issue. Given where the Republican Party stands today, and the influence of the Tea Party movement, it might take the political equivalent of an extreme makeover to make Blacks converts to the GOP. Absent the election of dozens of Black Republicans to Congress and hundreds to state and local offices, the seating of Allen West and Tim Scott in the 111th Congress will likely have little effect on the political loyalties of most Black Americans. For the GOP, the danger is that it could drive Blacks farther away from the party if the Black community views Black Republicans as apologists for perceived racist-driven politics.